THIS COLUMN was supposed to be about something else. It is instead a victim of the shutdown.
An arcane rule put out by the Federal Communications Commission has fallen prey to the law of unintended consequences, costing consumers unnecessary millions. It’s a neat illustration of how hard it is to regulate a complex market as rules move slowly and technology evolves rapidly.
So I called the FCC for comment and got a recording. My first thought was it must be a holiday but, of course, that wasn’t the case at all. The government was shut down. No one was around to answer the phone.
No matter. I was really just looking for the text of some proposed rule, so it was likely that it was posted on the FCC’s website. I went there and got a gray screen with a message: “during the federal government-wide shutdown . . . FCC online systems will not be available until further notice.” Odd. I understand that, with everyone on furlough, a website wouldn’t be updated. But as long as the power’s on and the URL is good (and, since I’m getting the gray screen, clearly it is) why can’t I see already posted information? I go to other government data sources — the US Census Bureau, for example — and get a similar notice.
The same is true with the National Park Service website, which announces that “all national parks are closed.” And sure enough, at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord the parking lot is barred. So too is the Minute Man National Historical Park, where for a while regular users of the park, roped off from parking, instead put their cars alongside the road and walked in. Now even that is banned.
Immediately after the shutdown began, park rangers in Washington, D.C., moved to barricade the World War II Memorial, a hulking and, to be frank, quite ugly construct smack dab in the middle of the National Mall. A visiting group of World War II veterans engaged in their own act of civil disobedience, moving the barriers to visit the site. The conservative press seized on the incident as somehow emblematic of the Obama administration’s supposed disdain for veterans. More likely — as with all of these incidents — it was simply part of a fiercely fought political contest.
The shuttered websites and shuttered parks could just as easily have been kept open, but they’re closed in order to make a point. For many of us, they are the most visible manifestation of the federal government in our lives. Take them away — ruin a few vacations, mess up a columnist’s story — and you drive home a message: “You need us.” The hope, presumably, is that distraught families and angered writers would then demand the Republicans back down.
What the administration is doing here is a variant of what has long been celebrated in first-year political science courses as the “Washington Monument ploy” — asked to trim its budget slightly, the Park Service responds by shutting down the capital’s tallest structure. The problem with the Washington Monument ploy, though, is that people quickly see through it. Government budget overseers know when an agency is playing the game and simply push back, forcing bureaucrats to take a harder look at their finances. When it comes to the shutdown, there’s a game afoot as well.
In truth, websites and national parks are trivial things. There are people being hurt far worse by the shutdown — the beneficiaries of the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program come to mind — but they are relatively powerless and invisible. And so the administration closes the things we do see in the hope that eventually it will get its way. Perhaps it will, or perhaps the GOP — believing this to be a president who, as with Syria’s red line, loses his nerve — may yet get some compromise. Until one or the other breaks, columnists and vacationers are out of luck.